Personal

The Vital Voice-Over Skill We Never Talk About

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Personal 10 Comments

It’s no secret.

Voice-overs love to talk. Sometimes, they even get paid for it.

But there’s another skill that’s almost as important, yet we rarely speak about it.

It’s listening.

Do you hear me?

Here’s the weird thing. Early in life, we learn how to walk, talk, and color inside the lines. But did anyone ever teach you how to listen?

We’re instructed to sit still and shut up, or else…. One day, my Kindergarten teacher dragged me by my ear, and shoved me into a corner for incessant talking. To add insult to injury, she taped a huge Band-Aid over my mouth.

I’d love to run into her one day, and tell her how I make a living….

By the way, keeping one’s mouth shut is not the same as being a receptive, retentive listener. Listening is a lost art that begs to be rediscovered. Why? Because we’re so used to tuning things out, and for a very good reason.

TOO MUCH NOISE

I don’t know about you, but on any given day my brain finds it easier and easer to reach stimulus overload. That’s no surprise. Every minute of every waking hour we are bombarded with images, smells, sounds, and other sensations. They all cry out for attention like ravenous septuplets wanting to be breastfed, and it’s too much to handle.

If we’d give equal attention to all our sensory input, we’d go mad. Literally. So, our noggin needs to prioritize what it’s going to pay attention to, and for how long. The rest gets tuned out. While that’s a good thing, we do run into another problem.

As we are drowning in information, our attention span is getting shorter and shorter. In fact, I’m surprised that you’re still reading these words! What’s wrong with you?

You may have heard of this one notorious consumer study claiming that the human attention span has gone down from twelve seconds in 2000, to eight seconds today. In contrast, the average attention span of a goldfish is nine seconds!

I’m not surprised. Goldfish tend to be very good listeners. Although they are a bit slippery, they’d make great shrinks.

Joking aside, my point is that in order to be a good listener, we need to be able to focus on something or someone, and preferably for longer than eight seconds. Why is this particularly important to voice-overs? To begin with, it is vital to the success of our one-person, volatile business, to listen to our clients. We need to know what our clients need to hear from us to be satisfied with our work.

PAYING ATTENTION

One of my students was working on a project, and the client had asked her to give what he called “a decisive read.” “Say no more,” she said. “I know exactly what you’re after.”

A day later she delivered the audio, and guess what? The client was not happy. He called her up and said: “I asked you to sound decisive. I just listened to your recording, and you sound aggressive. I can’t use that.”

“I’m sorry, I really tried,” answered my student. “You asked for decisive, and this is what I thought you meant. How could I have known you wanted something different?”

“Well,” said the client, “you didn’t give me a chance to demonstrate. Before I was able to give you an example, you interrupted me, and said you knew what I was after. Make sure you really understand what the people you’re working with want. Don’t make assumptions. Just listen, and ask questions. Do you think you can do that?”

There was a long pause on the other end of the line.

Lesson learned.

FOCUS AND INTENT

So, the secret to being a good listener has to do with focus and intent. Give yourself permission to focus on someone for longer than eight seconds with the intent to understand (instead of the intent to reply). Be genuinely interested in the other person. Keep your ears open, and your mouth shut.

Resist the impulse to interrupt and fill in the blanks. Those blanks are YOUR blanks, and may have nothing to do with what your client is trying to tell you.

This may sound easy, but in this fast and crazy world filled with manufactured distractions, it’s hard for people to sit still and slow down the running commentary between their ears. That commentary is usually evaluating what we just did, or figuring out what we should do next. It is rarely in the moment.

For us to really listen, we need to be in the moment.

To me, the ability to be in the moment is an essential life skill. There are many ways to achieve this state of mind, and some are more esoteric than others. I like to close my eyes, and slow down my breathing. After watching a documentary about Spartacus-star Andy Whitfield, I added the following mantra to quiet my mind:

BE

HERE

NOW

As you are reading these words, give it a try.

Close your eyes.

Begin breathing more deeply and s l o w l y.

Say to yourself in a soothing voice:

BE

HERE

NOW

 

BE

HERE

NOW

 

Thanks for playing along! You may need to relearn what it’s like to be here now (I certainly did), and this could be a good start. Take a few minutes each day to center yourself, and practice being in the moment. It may take you a while, and that’s okay.

Be gentle. Be patient, and be quiet.

LET THE WORDS SPEAK

Now, there’s a second reason why as a voice-over you need to learn how to listen. This has nothing to do with the people around you, and everything with what’s in front of you: your script. No matter what it is, an eLearning module, a historic novel, or a commercial, this script is trying to tell you something. It has a message. It wants to be understood.

While part of your restless brain is still conditioned to skim the words, please take your time to take them in. Don’t tune out. Tune in! Find out how the information is organized, and how the ideas unfold in sentences, paragraphs, and chapters. Some scripts can be like jigsaw puzzles. They come to you in many pieces. The only way to put them together, is to have a clear understanding of the big picture.

As a listener, I can always tell whether or not a narrator knows what he or she is talking about. I can hear the difference between a rush job and a thoughtful recording. I know when a narrator is in love with him- or herself, or with the text. It all comes back to listening. There’s a reason why a well-known Turkish proverb goes something like this:

“If speaking is silver, then listening is gold.”

THE QUIET CONDUIT

Author and radio host Celeste Headlee wondered why people would rather talk than listen. She says that when we’re talking, we are in control. We are the center of attention. I think she’s right.

As a voice-over professional, I see myself as a conduit. It’s not about me. It’s about the message. And the only way to honor the words I am about to speak, is to let them speak to me first.

All I need to do, is be in the moment, and listen.

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

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You Too?

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Journalism & Media, Personal, Social Media 12 Comments

Police line upThe “aholification” of society, otherwise known as the increase in the number of a-holes in the world.

That was what I was going to rant about this week.

You know, the people who just don’t seem to care about anyone but themselves. The people without manners. The loudmouths. The whiners. The bullies. The bullshitters.

I’m talking about the people who treat the world as their trash can. The folks who cut you off as they weave toward the next stop light. The ones who always skip the line because they’re so important. The people who love to criticize but never contribute. The ones who believe the world owes them everything, and the rules don’t apply.

I’m thinking of the blamers, the willfully ignorant, and the folks who hide behind screens as they troll their way into social media with poisonous pens, racist ideas, and bad spelling.

HORRIBLE HARVEY

Then the Weinstein scandal broke, and I had to add a whole new group to my list: the pigs, the perverts, the abusers of power, the ones preying on vulnerable and impressionable people, the horny sickos in bathrobes, the catcallers, the womanizers, the humiliators, the guys who think a short skirt is an invitation, and the men who can’t keep their hands in their pockets.

I call them the Players, the creeps, the sexists, the intimidators, the ones who pretend not to understand the meaning of the word NO, and those who believe that money and power can buy decades of silence.

As a man, I am utterly horrified and shocked by all the #MeToo messages, and sickening stories of sexual harassment and abuse. Judging by my Facebook timeline, a-holes are everywhere! They hold respectable positions: teachers, doctors, therapists, members of the clergy, managers, casting directors. Some just have a bit more money and influence than others. Many of them are friends of the family, and helpful neighbors.

The question is: would you recognize a sexual predator if you saw one?

FIND THE BAD GUY

Years of television typecasting has taught us how to spot a criminal, right? There’s the unibrow. The scarface. The ever-present five-o’clock shadow, clothes that don’t fit, and -in some cases- the British accent. Reality is very different. I bet you wouldn’t be able to pick a pervert from a police lineup. Fathers of five look too normal. I met one of them once, and I was utterly clueless. Here’s how it happened.

When I was seventeen, I got an opportunity to produce and present youth radio and television programs for a national broadcasting company. It was the chance of a lifetime, because all the teens that were chosen would be coached by industry veterans. Some of our coaches turned out to be minor celebrities with major attitudes, but my favorite teacher was a jolly guy in his sixties. Let’s call him Hans.

Grandfatherly Hans had been a producer of beloved children’s programs for years, and he knew everyone in the business. I learned a lot from him, and as we got closer, I asked him if he missed being involved in the day-to-day production of TV shows.

“I never really retired,” he told me. “I run a small production company out of my home, making low-budget movies. Come to think of it,” said Hans, “I wanted to ask you… would your girlfriend be interested in doing some acting?” At the time my girlfriend was in the same coaching program I was in, and apparently, she had caught his attention.

TAKING THE BAIT

When I told my girlfriend about the acting opportunity, she was flattered, and she thought it might be a good experience to work with a renowned producer. One quick screen test later she was hired, and within a month she heard that the first shoot would be on a remote location. “How do I get there?” she asked, because she was too young to drive a car. “Don’t worry, I’ll take you,” said Hans. “It’s quite a drive, but I have a fast car.”

At this point you probably hear the sound of a million alarm bells going off, but this was years and years ago, and we were quite naive. Hans loved everybody, and everybody loved Hans. His professional reputation was stellar, and there was no reason to doubt that his intentions were less than honorable. He always told us that he “wanted to pay it forward,” and pass his knowledge and experience on to younger generations.

Little did my girlfriend know that she was on her way to a porn shoot.

What really happened during the drive I still don’t know, but after an hour of grooming, patting, and sweet talk, it became quite clear that the budget for this production wasn’t going to the costume department. My girlfriend was furious, and at a stoplight she started screaming her head off. Drivers in other cars took notice, and an embarrassed Hans offered to turn around. What a gentleman!

THE OFFICIAL DENIAL

When we told the head of the coaching program what had occurred, he said my girlfriend must have misread Hans’s intentions. It couldn’t possibly be true. After all, “nothing happened.” Those were his words. Later on, we learned that they were old pals looking out for each other. Sounds familiar?

If you’ve ever been in a similar situation, you know that there is no such thing as “nothing happened.” There’s the shame, the embarrassment, the violation of trust, the anger, the disbelief, the self-doubt, the cover-up, the nightmares, the bitter taste of betrayal.

Back then there were no hashtags, no social media, and no reporters interested in the story. Today is different! Thank goodness so many courageous women are speaking out against the a-holes who are now on notice. They will be named and shamed in public. Their reputations will be ruined. Their families will be torn apart. Their businesses will pay a hefty price.

If that’s what it takes to create a safe, respectful society, so be it.

It won’t happen overnight, but all the Weinsteins of the world should know this:

Karma has no deadline.

If you knowingly and shamelessly dig yourself into a hole, Karma will come and find you!

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

PS Three months after publishing this story, the voice-over community was rocked by the news that 16 women have accused New York voice talent and coach Peter Rofé of sexual harrassment. CNN broke the news. Click here to read the article. Since then, another 13 women have stepped forward with similar experiences. If you were the victim of sexual harrassment in the voice-over community, you may confidentially share your experience or ask a question. Please contact voiceoverjusticeclub@gmail.com.

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The Agony Of Ignorance

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Personal 41 Comments

Rocking the mic?

Can you believe the stuff people put on t-shirts these days?

This morning, one of the guys who looks like he lives in the gym I go to, had this slogan printed all over his colossal chest:

“If it’s not hard, you’re not doing it right.”

What kind of message is that? It’s along the same lines as “No pain, no gain.”

Do people actually believe that stuff?

You see, I have the exact opposite experience. When I’m doing things right, everything seems to flow naturally, and nothing is hard or painful. Granted, it has taken some hard work to get to that point, but when I’m in the zone, things are surprisingly easy.

If you happen to share that experience, take it as a sign that in certain areas of your life you may have reached a level of what experts refer to as “unconscious competence.” You’re not even aware that you’ve become pretty good at what you’re doing. It feels like driving a car. In the beginning it was frustratingly complicated. Now, you don’t even have to think about it. 

“So what do you find hard in your business?” one of my workout buddies wanted to know, as we were doing our exercise routine. “You’re a voice-over, right?” 

He was not the one wearing that silly t-shirt, by the way. 

“At the risk of sounding brash,” I said, “it’s not so much the work I find hard, but the people I have to deal with every now and then. Particularly the people who think they’re the best thing since sliced bread. Maybe it’s my age, but there are at least three things I can’t stand:

Ignorance, pretentiousness, and a sense of entitlement. Especially if all these qualities reside within one person.”

“We must be working with the same people then,” laughed my friend, as he was programming his treadmill. “I’m a professional photographer, and you wouldn’t believe how many people think they can do what I do without having a clue.”

“That’s the trouble with ignorance,” I said. “People don’t know what they don’t know, but it doesn’t stop them, does it?”

“Agreed,” said my buddy, “but here’s what I don’t get. Everyone understands that playing the violin is not something you can learn overnight. However, every ambitious idiot with a camera believes he’s the next Annie Leibovitz. It ticks me off.”

I wanted to tell him that I saw the same thing in my line of work. Give a monkey a microphone, and he thinks he can be the next Tom Kenny. 

“Ignorance isn’t always bliss,” I said, as I increased the speed on my treadmill. “Usually, ignorance is a pain in the neck, and I find it very challenging to teach ignorant people who think they know it all. I mean, if they supposedly know what they are doing, why do they want me to be their coach? It doesn’t make any sense.”

“I have no problem with beginners who come to me, and who are aware that they have a lot to learn,” said my photographer-friend. “Everything you teach them is new and exciting. I admire kids with an open mind. They remind me of the time I got started. That’s why I love being a mentor.”

He wiped the sweat from his forehead, and said: “Is it just me, or are today’s kids a bit full of themselves?”

“Quite possibly,” I responded. “Parents are quick to praise, and hesitate to criticize, so as not to damage the delicate self-esteem of their offspring. I’m all for raising confident kids, as long as they know their strengths and their limitations. In my class they’d never get a trophy, just for showing up.”

I took a sip of water, and continued:

“Now, there’s another type of ignorance I’m allergic to.”

“What might that be?” asked my friend, as he was walking uphill on the exercise equipment. 

“It’s the lazy type of ignorance. You know… quasi-ignorant people who are looking for a big, fat, silver platter. I just got an email from someone who asked to pick my brain about casting sites and voice-over rates. I politely suggested she do a Google search first. 

“What was her response?” asked my friend.

“Oh, I never heard back from her,” I said. “But on Facebook she told all her fans that I was the most unhelpful person in the voice-over community. To be honest, she didn’t use the word “person,” but the term she used starts with a “p” and it rhymes with chick. 

“Some people think I’m rather obnoxious,” said my buddy, “just because I refuse to give them the answers they are fishing for. Of course I want to help, but I tell my kids: ‘You won’t learn anything as long as I spoon-feed it to you. The things you discover yourself tend to stick much better.’

I want my students to make an effort. I want them to fail, and I want them to overcome the biggest challenges. Otherwise they’ll attach no value to what they have learned, and they’ll have no respect for the business. 

There’s no gratification in arriving on the top of a mountain in a helicopter. But when you start at the bottom and climb your way up, the journey itself becomes meaningful. And when you’ve finally reached that peak, you feel on top of the world!”

“Are you sure you’re a photographer?” I asked. “That’s a darn good metaphor you just used. I might steal that one for my blog.”

“You go right ahead,” he said. “I used to do a bit of mountain climbing when I was younger. I have the pictures to prove it. And a few scars. But what about you? Are you a climber?”

“Oh no, I’m from The Netherlands,” I answered. “There are no mountains in our tiny Kingdom below sea level. Holland is as flat as a pancake.”

“In that case, I have the perfect exercise for you,” said my buddy, as he pointed to the StairMaster.

“I believe this baby has your name on it,” he smiled. “Come on! This thing is the perfect way to get nowhere fast. Try it.”

Reluctantly, I climbed onto the steps, and started my ascend into nothingness. 

“I hope it’s not a metaphor for my career,” I said, gasping for air. “This is really hard!”

“Well, you know what they say…” said the photographer with a big grin.

“If it’s hard, it means you must be doing it right!”

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

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photo credit: 50 of 52 via photopin (license)

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It’s Time To Choose

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Money Matters, Pay-to-Play, Personal 8 Comments

Back in the Netherlands (where I was born), the fathers of my two best friends both worked in the same chemical plant.

I was eight or nine years old, so I wasn’t sure what the plant was producing. We did notice nasty clouds of yellow smoke coming from the chimney day and night. The stream behind the main building was smelly and bereft of life. My parents always warned me not to play there. 

Then, a local journalist, suspicious of what was going on, went undercover for a year, and with the help of an environmental group, he discovered that this plant was dumping dangerous chemicals left and right to save money. That money, by the way, went straight into the coffers of the two brothers who owned the plant.

The news of the pollution shocked and surprised the community, but it turned out that many employees knew all along what was going on. They said management had told them the dumping was necessary to keep the plant competitive, and that mother nature could handle it. 

How did the fathers of my friends respond? Very differently! One said that what this plant was doing was despicable, and he could no longer work for a factory that poisoned the environment for the sake of profit. So, he quit.

The other wasn’t happy about the pollution either, but said he needed to make a living. His family depended on his job, and he couldn’t afford to give it up. “Don’t make me feel guilty for staying,” he used to say to critics. “Do you want my family to starve? There’s no pride in poverty!”

While the father who quit went on to start his own business, the one who stayed died within a year. Doctors said his cancer was probably linked to the chemicals he had been dumping on a daily basis. 

A UNIVERSAL EXPERIENCE

This story of choices and the consequences of those choices is by no means unique. All over the world, at any hour of the day, good people do great work in bad organizations. They know the organization is bad, and yet they stay. Why? Because it pays the bills, and they have no other job lined up.

You see, the father who left the chemical plant had a small side business going on in his spare time. He had developed a line of biodegradable cleaning agents, and with the help of an investor he was able to launch his own brand which eventually became a household name. 

I was reminded of this saga after reading some of the responses to my last blog post entitled A Deal With The Devil, about voices dot com acquiring Voicebank. In it, I think I’m pretty clear:

It is time to choose sides.

Either, you’re part of the solution, or you’re part of the problem. As long as you keep investing in a company that does not have your best interest at heart, you keep that company in business. So, if you want voices dot com to stop poisoning the voice-over well while it is grabbing a larger share of the market, you have to act, and you have to act now. It’s in your own interest, and in the interest of your community. That is, if you feel part of that community.

Perhaps there’s the rub. 

To me the word collegial means “relating to, or involving shared responsibility, as among a group of colleagues.” It means standing up for common interests, and having each other’s backs. It refers to a friendly spirit of cooperation. As far as I’m concerned, we have a common goal:

To deliver the best service, to increase our standards, and to ensure that we’re getting paid a fair and decent rate.

BROTHER AGAINST BROTHER

Clients love to have us fight among ourselves, especially about what we charge. They’re trying to drive a wedge between those who sell their talent for less, and those who refuse to devalue what we have to offer. It’s up to us to play that game or not.

No matter where we stand, all VO Pros are small business owners, and it’s a no-brainer that the higher our rates, the more we make. The more we make, the more we can share and grow. So, it’s in our best interest to do whatever we can as a group and as individuals to educate clients and newcomers, and charge a decent rate for decent work so you and I can make a good living.

People have asked me to explain what I mean by a “decent rate,” and “making a good living.” That’s a good question.

My definition of a making good living is going to sound rather technical. It’s to make enough money to cover a family’s needs, to achieve financial independence while maintaining housing and food security, and have enough resources for health care, child care, education, transportation, savings, taxes, charitable giving, vacations, investments, and provisions for retirement or home purchases that build wealth, and ensure long-term financial security. A decent rate is a rate that allows you to realize these goals. 

Is that something you’re interested in? 

MIND YOUR OWN BUSINESS

You may believe it’s none of my business what you or other people charge, or to which Pay to Play you want to belong, but I believe it is everybody’s business, because we don’t operate in a vacuum. We’re all connected, whether we realize it or not. The movement of the markets is the result of many, many individual decisions. 

Some readers thought it was incredibly rude of me to suggest that someone who’s okay with doing low-budget jobs, finds another line of work. Well, I think it is rude to resort to predatory pricing to undercut the competition by cheapening the value of our services. People who are willing to work for less than minimum wage or in some cases for free just to get exposure, should seriously consider another career before going broke trying to break into the business. 

“But Paul, I can’t afford to leave voices dot com. I have to eat. My family has to eat.” 

Well, I’ve been freelancing for most of my life, and I’ve discovered that it doesn’t have to be either/or: either we starve asking for a decent rate, or we eat while charging a rate that’s not so great. It’s a false dilemma. It’s also bad business as a freelancer to make yourself dependent on one or two sources of income. You’re supposed to be an independent contractor!

Every time someone gets hired for a reasonable rate, they prove that clients are willing to pay good money for good work. It’s a matter of identifying one’s strengths, and targeting clients looking for someone with those strengths. If you’re not doing so well financially speaking, you might be looking and booking in the wrong places. But if you’re good at what you do, you compete on much more than price. You compete on added value!

Remember what I tell my clients?

My added value is always higher than my rate.

YOU DESERVE MORE

There’s no pride in settling for less than you deserve. If you feel you’re not getting paid what you’re worth, hire a coach to help you improve and grow your business. That’s where you should spend your money. Don’t spend it on a hefty membership fee that gives you the privilege of auditioning for low-paying jobs that may go out to hundreds if not thousands of other “privileged” members. 

Now, let’s be honest. If you feel that voices dot com rates are as fair as their business practices, I want you to explain why it would be beneficial to a freelancer to leave money on the table, and why it’s okay to play a part in the overall decline of voice-over rates. Explain to me why it is fine for a non transparent company like voices dot com to turn voice actors into a commodity, and keep most of the money for managing a job (whatever that means), and handling your payment. I dare you!

The people who decided to stay with “Voices,” have told me they are aware of what’s going on, and they don’t necessarily approve. If that’s the case, I challenge you to get a spine, raise your voice, and contact the CEO, David Ciccarelli. Tell him exactly how you feel, and give him a chance to respond. Companies can change course under pressure, and Ciccarelli knows that without voices, there is no voices dot com. Let’s see if the company you still trust, is trustworthy, and open to feedback.

Here’s what I’m wondering, though: Do you have the guts to speak your mind, or will you continue to whine about people who you think are trying to make you feel guilty (thereby making them the problem, and not voices dot com)?

BACK TO HOLLAND

Meanwhile, the chemical plant in the Netherlands I was talking about denied the allegations, and tried to discredit the journalist who had exposed their practices. The government launched an independent investigation, and did indeed find that the chemical company had been poisoning the environment for years, putting an entire community at risk.

The company was ordered to pay a huge fine, clean up the polluted property, and change their production process. The brothers who owned the plant said they could not afford to do that, and when the government forced them to, they declared bankruptcy. Hundreds of people lost their jobs. 

Rumor has it that the two brothers moved to Switzerland, where they live a life of luxury.

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

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The Weight Of The World

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Personal 5 Comments

photo credit: © Paul Strikwerda

Last week, I did a webinar on blogging for members of The VoiceOver Network.

One of the things host Rachael Naylor wanted to know, was how I got from zero to over thirty-eight thousand subscribers.

Although I did not survey each and every reader of this blog, I do receive a lot of feedback from my “fans.” This gives me some indication as to why they return to my musings, week after week.

The one comment that comes back again and again, is that -even though this is a voice-over blog- people like that I write about more than microphones, making money, and the secret to winning auditions.

Ultimately, I see my work as a means to an end, and sometimes I feel more like writing about “the end,” than about the means to getting there. To illustrate the point, I ended my webinar by reading my blog post The Weight of the World, which -in light of the recent terrorist attacks- turned out to be terribly relevant.

After my appearance on the VoiceOver Hour, some of the students in the U.K. asked me if I could republish that particular blog post, because it really resonated with them. It had only been a few days since a suicide bomber had blown himself and twenty-two others up, during an Ariana Grande concert.

Last Saturday, terrorists struck again on London Bridge, killing eight people.

So, with great sadness and a heavy heart, here is The Weight of the World:

 

Paris. Kabul. Manchester. London.

On some days this beautiful planet is so full of hatred and hardship that I feel guilty writing about such trivial things as “work.”

It sure is fun to blog about freelancing, marketing, and microphone technique, but I have to ask: “To what avail?”

Does it lead to a deeper understanding of the human psyche?

Does it tell us why young, radicalized men stuff their luggage with glass and nails, before they blow themselves and innocent others to bits and pieces?

Does it explain why so many people still believe that violence is the only way forward to further a cause?

As a blogger, shouldn’t I be writing about those issues, instead of talking about home studios, auditions, and online casting companies? 

Whenever I ask myself these questions, I have to remind myself of where I came from.

Before leaving the Netherlands, I worked as one of those stone-faced newscasters informing the world of yet another tragedy. On air, I asked countless experts about the roots of evil, and I grilled politicians about their ideas on how to fix a broken world.

Day after day I reported on endless suffering and strife, and I was part of the sensationalist “if it doesn’t bleed, it doesn’t lead” gang, that determines what is newsworthy and what isn’t. On sunnier days I would be searching for that snippet of positive news we could end our program with, to remind the listeners that not all people are perverts, rapists, or suicidal religious radicals. 

Don’t get me wrong: I loved the excitement and the adrenaline of the newsroom. It gave me a steady income, a certain status, and a sense of purpose. A democracy can only function when people are able to make smart decisions based on hard facts, and I was in the business of providing those facts. My radio station also gave me a unique opportunity to hold the feet of the famous to the fire.

Yet, one day, it all fell apart when I noticed myself caring less and less about the horror stories I was covering. In the beginning I would blame my lack of response on the need to “stay professional,” meaning detached from the raw emotions that are part and parcel of every human tragedy. I was supposed to stay as neutral as our network professed to be, and not get emotionally involved. But it came at a price. 

I gradually developed a tendency to disassociate myself from all kinds of feelings. Positive and negative. That invisible screen I was using to shield myself from sadness in the newsroom, had become like a second skin. It protected me, and it numbed me at the same time.

Over time, I came to a frightening realization:

I had lost one of the very few things that separates humans from animals: the ability to empathize.

I’d seen this happen to veteran journalists who were trying to cope with the crazy demands of their job. Some became chain smokers, heavy drinkers, and lifelong cynics. Others filed for divorce. It was not a road I wanted to travel.

One day, after covering yet another disaster, I just knew I had reached my limit. Years of reporting had done nothing to change the world. If anything, the world had gotten worse. All I wanted was to get out of broadcasting, and do something useful with my life. Something exhilarating. Something inspiring. Something uplifting.

When I finally left the poisonous bubble that was the newsroom, it took me a while to adjust to a new reality. A reality that wasn’t nearly as violent as I had thought it would be. Slowly but surely I discovered a world filled with kindness and good people. It was as if someone had opened the dark blinds that had been filtering the light from the windows for such a long time.

I came to realize that the news I had covered for all those years focused on the exceptions; on the grotesque and the extraordinary. The thousands of planes that land safely every day will never be on CNN. It’s the plane that crashes that ends up making headlines. And if you add all those headlines up, it’s easy to get the impression that this world is rotten to the core. But it’s a deliberate distortion of reality, contrived to kick up the ratings. 

Reality is so much better and less sensational than the networks want you to believe. For most of us it is reassuringly unspectacular and ordinary. It revolves around friends, family…. and work. Ultimately, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to blog about work, even when evil forces are trying to fill this world with fear.

The question remains: how do we respond to those who want to scare us by causing panic, pain, and suffering?

How do we deal with the fact that -to quote Harold Kushner- bad stuff happens to good people?

All of us have to come to terms with this in our own time and in our own way. Life and death are mysterious teachers.

Let me leave you with what I think.

The only way we can learn to live with darkness, is to focus on the light, and to become a reflection of that light.

Whether we realize it or not, all of us were born with the ability to shine. 

Once we start taking that to heart, perhaps we can begin making this place a better world.

In Paris. In Kabul. In Manchester. In London.

Everywhere.

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

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Feeding Your Soul

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Personal, Promotion 22 Comments
Columcille Megalyth Park

Photo credit ©Paul Strikwerda

A few weeks ago, I gave you my “formula” for being less busy, and more productive:

Focus on what you’re good at. Outsource the rest.

People who run a successful business hire people who are smarter and more talented than they are, to take care of certain aspects of that business. These experts are able to do things better and quicker, leaving you with more time to focus on your strengths. That’s where the money is!

This philosophy has served me very well, and yet it’s only part of the picture. Today I am going to reveal something to you I haven’t told anyone else. At first, it will sound like a contradiction in terms, but I assure you it is not. It is something essential that took me many, many years to learn, and quite frankly, I don’t think I’ve mastered it yet.

Because it is seemingly contradictory, it confused me to the core, and at first I fought it tooth and nail. But once I discovered the benefits of this strange strategy, I came to embrace it.

TRYING TOO HARD

It all began some ten years ago. I was trying very hard to build my business, working 60 to 70 hour weeks. The idea was that the more I would put into it, the more I would get out of it. That’s only fair, right? It’s the same perverse philosophy that’s behind the torture that is cold calling. The more numbers you dial, the greater the chance of success. That’s what they say, whoever “they” are.

Well, this might be working for some people, but it wasn’t working for me. All that knocking on doors and auditioning for anything under the sun left me exhausted, and disenchanted. Bottom line: I had run into the law of diminishing returns. The more I tried, the less I accomplished.

Have you ever been in a situation like that?

People around me said: “You’re working too hard. Take break. You can’t force success.”

Did I listen? No!

Every time I took a breather, I felt tremendously guilty because I could have and should have been using that time on something useful and productive.

DREAM ON

This voice-over business was supposed to be my dream job. Dream jobs don’t feel like work, and they give you energy, don’t they? It’s the ultimate freedom from the 9 to 5 rat race so many people get caught up in. It was my chance to prove to the world that I could be my own boss, living life on my own terms and turf.

If all of that were true, why didn’t it feel that way? Why was I waking up exhausted before the day had even begun? Why had I become an irritable, self-absorbed, sad sack of a husband who could only converse about finding new ways to get new clients?

“Oh, the first three years are always the hardest,” I told myself and my friends. “Eventually, it is going to get better, and it will all be worth it!” (insert fake smile)

But things didn’t get better, and I didn’t know how to turn it around…. until the day I walked into my local bookstore, and picked up a random paperback from the self-help section. The next thing I did was such a cliché: I closed my eyes, opened a page, and looked at the first thing that caught my eye. It was a quotation:

You can’t give what you don’t have.

I don’t remember the title of the book or who wrote it, but it felt like I had received a message from the universe that could not be ignored. If my business was a flower bed, I had been watering and watering it, until the can was empty, and could not be refilled. No water: no growth. It was crystal clear.

So, what was I to do? Give up? Sit on the couch and watch TV all day long? Play video games?

I looked at the next few lines in the book, and the author had clearly anticipated my question. This was her advice:

“Replenish yourself. Do something that feeds your soul. Something that has nothing to do with work.”

STEPPING OUT OF IT

I’ve always been a lover of the outdoors. That was one of the things that attracted me to America. Endless forests. Majestic mountain ranges. Roaring rivers. Hidden trails.

The day after my revelation I put on my hiking boots, and I disappeared into the woods. For hours. There and then I realized how much I had missed my conversation with nature. I had missed the fresh smell of pine trees, the sweet sound of bird song, and the quiet rustling of the leaves. Not once did I think about my flailing business.

As I was trying to capture what I was experiencing, I thought of something else that was missing in my life: writing!

From the moment my mother taught me how to write, I was always scribbling words on pieces of paper. As a teenager, I would never leave home without a small notebook. In the last few years, however, I had been too busy reading scripts other people had written, and I felt I didn’t have time to put my pen to paper.

When I came back from my walk, it was as if a load had lifted from my shoulders. I could breathe again, and I went to the attic to find my favorite journal which was still half empty, (or half full, depending on how you look at it). Without even thinking, words started flowing from an invisible source within me, as if someone had opened a faucet filled with feelings and ideas.

Then it dawned upon me. What if I were to use my passion for writing, and start a blog for my business? It was something so obvious that I had never thought of it before. It’s like suddenly seeing something that is right in front of you!

And that is how this blog was born.

BOOSTING BUSINESS

In all the years that I’ve been doing voice-overs, nothing has been more vital to the promotion of my business as this blog. Colleagues read it. Clients read it. You are reading it right now.

Here’s the irony and the contradiction: the idea came to me as I was doing my very best not to focus on my business. I was relaxed. I was in the moment. I was feeding my soul.

All of us get stuck from time to time. We get worked up. We feel frustrated. We might even lose faith.

The question is: What should we do about it?

Take my advice. Let it go, and find what feeds your soul. For some this might be through yoga, music, or meditation. Some people paint, or work in the garden. Others start jogging, or get on a bike. There is no right or wrong. Whatever floats your boat.

In a society that is obsessed with work, and where people pride themselves on how many hours they put in, this is a radical shift. To me, it did not feel normal. I had to work hard on not working so hard.

But the moments I chose to feed my soul, turned out to be the most fulfilling and eye-opening moments of my life. They proved to be the answer to the question:

“What for?”

Ultimately, our work is just a means to an end, but to what end?

FINDING MEANING

As I was hiking on that wooded trail, experiencing the serenity of solitude, and the beauty of creation, I realized:

“This is what it’s all about.”

I don’t mean withdrawing from the world, but rediscovering an essential part of that world that is so easily lost. The part that’s more about being, than about doing

Look at it this way: there’s always going to be something in your inbox. You’ll always find a reason to do more work to please more people. But you can’t give what you don’t have. If you don’t step away from your business from time to time, it will take everything you have, and then some.

Candles that are burned out, can’t spread any light.

Please make time to create moments that matter. These moments will give you the energy to carry on, and the inspiration to evolve, personally and professionally.

The other day, my wife and I went to Columcille Megalith Park, in Bangor, Pennsylvania. It’s a park rooted in Celtic spirituality, and inspired by the Isle of Iona off the coast of Scotland.

If you’re not in a position to leave your computer right now to go on a hike, take a few minutes to absorb the pictures I took, and listen to the music.

Then get back to what you were doing.

I can almost assure you that you won’t feel the same!

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

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Learning A Dying Language

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Personal 4 Comments

Erin McGuirk, the author, Christopher Black & Chief Chuck Gentlemoon DeMund

To say that voice-overs are spoiled by technology is an overstatement, but one thing is certain. 

In less than ten years our business has transformed itself tremendously. 

Quality recording equipment is as affordable as it has ever been. We audition for projects from all over the world from the comfort of a home studio. 

We no longer have to mail our demo tapes to producers and agents. We can email thousands of contacts with the click of a mouse, and reach new target groups on Facebook for a few dollars.

Things have definitely changed. 

Back in my radio days, if I didn’t know the pronunciation of a name or a word in a foreign language, I would call an embassy. Now I go to Forvo, and other online resources.

But what if you get a script like this?

“Kewelamewemalhelameneyo ntakiyemena, shek yukwe luwehemo ntala kiskhokwehena teli nkaski tentehwenen, ntala alaihena teli mpatahwilsinen moni.”

First of all, can you guess what language this is? 

It is the dying language of the Lenape or Delaware Indians. Their territory included New Jersey, eastern Pennsylvania, southeastern New York State, northern Delaware, and a small section of southeastern Connecticut. 

The quote above is from a play written by Christopher Black, called Easton 1752: Founding of a Frontier Village. It’s performed by The Bachmann Players, a group of amateur historians and actors, based in Easton, Pennsylvania (where I live). We’re named after the Bachmann Publick House, one of the oldest buildings in town, where the plays are performed. 

In this production I’m playing the role of Conrad Weiser, a Pennsylvania Dutch pioneer, interpreter, and diplomat between the Pennsylvania Colony and Native Americans.

In the play I am translating for a Lenape woman portrayed by Erin McGuirk, so most of my lines are in English, but I do speak a little bit of Lenape. In order to sound as authentic as possible, we couldn’t just call an embassy to get the right pronunciation. There is an online Lenape Talking Dictionary, but it is limited, so we decided to get the help of an expert: Chief Chuck Gentlemoon DeMund.

In order to give us a “feel” for the language, he began with a few basics:


After that, we started working on our lines.

On the way back from the Lenape Cultural Center, I realized that my life has taken some unpredictable twists and turns. 

When I came to the Unites States from the Netherlands at the end of 1999, I brought two suitcases filled with memories, hopes, and dreams.

Little did I know that one day, I would sit next to an Indian Chief, learning a few words of a fascinating language that is almost extinct. And in June, I’ll put on a colonial costume, and recreate the history of my new home town in front of a live audience. 

With all the technology at our fingertips, there is still no substitute for human interaction.

So, if you ever get sick of the solitude of your voice-over booth, get involved in local theatre, take some improv classes, join a choir, or improve your public speaking skills.

It will transform you outside of your vocal booth, and (miraculously), inside your studio as well.

Wanishi!*

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice 

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*Wanishi means “thank you” in Lenape.

Performances at the Bachmann House in Easton, PA, are on Friday June 2nd • Saturday June 10th (SOLD OUT) • 7:00 PM $55 Includes 3 course colonial style meal and beverages.

Sunday June 18th, 2:00 PM matinee followed by talk back with the Players. $25 Includes light refreshments.

Reservations must be made at least 10 days prior to each performance. CALL 610-253-1222 for reservations.

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Being Wrong About Being Right

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Personal 15 Comments

Looking at the mirrorGo ahead. Do it!

After today you may ask me everything about the hypothalamic-pituitary-gonadal axis, and the early onset of puberty.

I promise you one thing: it will make me cry like a baby.

Normally, I don’t concern myself with gonadotripin-releasing hormones stimulating steroid secretion. But as a voice-over, people send me the strangest scripts with the weirdest words. My job is to sound like these words are my bread and my butter, even though I prefer to have other things for breakfast.

Just to give you an idea of my voice-over diet so far:

On Monday I was telling the world about how “metabolic programming” can change the genetic expression of young farm animals. On Tuesday I pretended to be the monotonous Swiss CEO of a company refurbishing projectile weaving machines. Tomorrow I’ll be talking about the art of selling on eBay in Germany.

But today… today was all about the regulation of the reproductive system in kids with central precocious puberty, and a discovery I made about myself. Don’t worry. I won’t take you back to my childhood in the Netherlands, where naughty boys are forced to stick their fingers in dikes, while eating insane amounts of cheese.

This story is about a medical script, and how easy it is to fool ourselves into believing that we actually know what we are doing. Well, I cannot speak for you, but I’m usually pretty confident about my skills as a professional narrator.

After years and years in radio, I always thought of myself as a solid cold reader. You can throw any text at me, and I’ll sound as if I know what I am talking about. It’s a dangerous skill to have, by the way. It’s like wearing glasses. Somehow, people automatically assume that the bespectacled among us, must be more intelligent. Those who sound like they know what they’re talking about, are mistakenly put into the same category, until they’re exposed as professional pretenders.

The medical script in front of me, came with a page-long pronunciation guide. It was like learning another language. A language of affliction, clinical trials, and a cure. It was about one of those medications advertisers want you to ask your doctor about. Some kind of pill that takes ten seconds to describe, followed by thirty seconds of rapid-fire contraindications and sickening side-effects.

It took me a while to record the 5000-word script, and even longer to edit it. I like doing my own editing. My voice gets a rest, and my ears and eyes can do some quality control. After all the files were cleaned up, separated, and properly named, I uploaded my work feeling confident about what I had accomplished. I was sure the client would be just as impressed.

Two hours later I got an email from the guy who had proofed my audio. “Great work,” he said. Out of thousands of words, I had only mispronounced about a dozen. But here’s the kicker: I had mispronounced the same word twelve times!

Instead of “pituitary-gonadal axis,” I had read “pituary-gonadal axis.” At least I was consistent in my mistakes.

What struck me the most was this: even though I had prepared the script, read the script, and edited my audio, I had missed my slip of the tongue again and again and again. I didn’t see it, and I didn’t hear it. Why? Because something in me believed that “pituary” was right.

I saw what I wanted to see, and I heard what I wanted to hear.

It made me oblivious to my errors.

It reminded me of the copywriter who was ready to distribute a press release about a local public market to hundreds of news outlets. He had been working on it for hours, and gave it to me so I could take one last look at it.

I said to him: “Nice work, but I hope you’re not going to send it this way. Look at the headline.”

“What about it?” he asked defensively. “It says:

Public Market Attracts Thousands Of Young Visitors.”

“No it doesn’t,” I said. “Look closely.”

He still didn’t see it, so I told him:

“You forgot the letter “L” in the word “Public.”

“Oh my gosh,” he responded. “I have been staring at that headline for hours, and never even noticed it. Who wants to send their kids to a Pubic Market? How embarrassing!”

Well, that’s how I felt after my pituary debacle. It also had me thinking.

Have I become one of those people who lives life guided by conformation bias? You know, the idea that we’re always looking for evidence that supports our beliefs (and we’re conveniently ignoring the rest).

I really believed the word was “pituary,” and I didn’t even see that the word in the script was spelled differently.

What if I look at people that way? That’s pretty scary. They’ll never be able to be any better or different from whom I think they are…. until someone points something out I had never considered. It’s all a matter of perception.

Perceptions are powerful. And they can be so wrong.

Perceptions tell us more about the perceiver, than about what is being perceived.

This afternoon, instead of being done with my medical project, I had to revisit every file with the word “pituitary” in it, and correct my mistakes. It was a humbling, uncomfortable experience that took up way too much time. It taught me one other lesson.

Sometimes, something happens that makes us change our perception of who we think we are.

In those moments, it is time to have a word…

with the person staring back at us in the mirror.

And after some reflection, please tell that person:

Everything is perception, but perception isn’t everything.

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

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The Cost of Having a Conscience: the Ethics of Voice-Over

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Pay-to-Play, Personal, Social Media, VO Atlanta 24 Comments

The author at VO Atlanta

There is no doubt about it:

The fifth edition of VO Atlanta was spec-ta-cu-lar!

Over 550 voice-overs, coaches, service providers, and VO VIPS gathered for three never-ending days, and had a blast.

The quest for actionable knowledge was palpable. The desire to raise our reputation, our standards, and our rates was on everybody’s mind. The energy was electric!

If you ever doubt that ours is a sharing and caring community, come to next year’s conference, and feel the love of an amazingly talented, supportive, and crazy group of people who are short on ego, and big on brother- and sisterhood. You’ll never feel isolated again, and you will leave tired but incredibly inspired.

I had the good fortune of sharing the stage with Bev Standing, Dave Courvoisier, Cliff Zellman, Rob Sciglimpaglia, and moderator J. Michael Collins for a panel discussion on Voice-Overs and Ethics. Because so many of you weren’t able to be there, and the topic is so important, I want to recap some of my thoughts on the issue. Let’s begin with my take on ethics.

MORALS, MONEY, and ME

In short, ethics are moral principles that shape our lives; beliefs about what’s right and what’s wrong. These beliefs guide our decisions, and help us make choices based on what we think is important and good for us, and for society. Every day we make ethical decisions: at the grocery store, when we decide which charity to donate to, and which party and politician to vote for.

Even though the ethics panel largely focused on rates and business practices, ethics goes further than fees and codes of conduct. In my case, personal ethics impact pretty much every business decision I make. My moral compass makes me ask questions such as:

– Do I really want to work with this client?
– Is this a product or service, political party, or philosophy I want to be associated with?
– Is my business all about money, or can and should it be an instrument for social change?

During the panel discussion, moderator J. Michael Collins asked a number of thought-provoking questions, and here’s number one:

Do talent have an obligation to consider the impact of their pricing on the greater industry?

No one lives on an island. Whether we realize it or not, we’re all connected. Perhaps I see it that way because I come from a very small country. In the Netherlands, the Dutch can’t easily escape the consequences of their actions. The behavior of one company or one person even, can affect society as a whole. 

In the labor market, voice-overs belong to a rapidly growing group of independent contractors. I’ve always thought that this label was wrong. I prefer to call us interdependent contractors. We’re all linked by common causes, and individual actions influence those causes. What do I mean?

For one, all of us are training clients how to treat us.

Every time we quote a job, we’re giving out a signal to the industry: “This is what a job is worth. This is what I’m worth.” If we’re telling clients they can get more for less, we’ve just helped set a standard, and made our job a bit cheaper. Of course you may not see it that way, because it’s part of human nature to downplay the impact individuals have on their environment.

Millions of individual shoppers, for instance, neglect the fact that their plastic bags are responsible for the killing of marine life on a scale that’s unimaginable. But -as a wise man once said- if you believe that individuals have no influence on the system as a whole, you’ve never spent the night with a flea in your bed.

Here’s Michael’s next question:

Do talent have a responsibility to avoid doing business with sites or companies who promote poor pay standards?

As far as I’m concerned, there are many reasons to avoid working with certain companies. Perhaps they’re big polluters. Perhaps they use child labor. Perhaps they are run by a corrupt family. You’ve got to do your homework to find out. By working with those companies and sites, we keep them in business, thus enabling their practices.

Here’s the thing. I’m not going to tell you why and where you should draw the line. If you’re okay voicing a promotional video for a company that makes cluster bombs, that’s your choice. If you’re fine voicing a commercial for a fast food giant, go ahead -as long as you take some time to think about the ethical implications of what you’re doing.

In our line of work, a job is rarely “just” a job.

I will not lend my voice to video games that glorify gratuitous violence. As a vegetarian, I refuse to promote animal products, and as a non-smoker, I will never sing the praises of a tobacco product. For that, I am willing to pay a price. Sometimes it is a hefty price, because throughout my career I’ve had to say “No” to quite a few projects that would have paid the bills for many months.

My voice may be for hire, but my morals are not for sale.

So, do I think we have a responsibility to not do business with companies that rip us off? Absolutely! We’re either part of the problem, or we’re part of the solution.

What are some best practices you would like to see coaches and demo producers follow?

Number one: Don’t guarantee your students any work. ROI is not a given. There are very few shortcuts to success. Coaches and producers should stress that this is a subjective, unfair business. Get rich quick does not exist. They should educate their students about going rates, and professional standards.

Coaches and producers should carefully select whom they want to work with. They should not continue to take money from students that have no talent, or show little improvement, just because they’re paying customers. In my opinion, that’s unethical.

What expectations should talent reasonably have of talent agents and agencies?

An agent or agencies should offer opportunities that play to the strength of a particular talent. They should do the leg work, so the talent can focus on the job. Agents or agencies should also negotiate a decent rate. What else?

A good agent knows you better than you know yourself. A good agent sees potential, and hears things you yourself do not hear. A good agent helps you grow, and goes to bat for you.

A great agent has a unique in, into the market; something other agents may not have. I want an agent to be brutally honest with me, and to shield me from bad clients.

What is a reasonable commission for an agent, or other casting organization to take?

Anywhere between ten and twenty percent.

What are some red flags to watch out for when seeking agency representation?

Agents charging a fee for representation: “I’ll represent you if you pay me 250 bucks!”

Another red flag points at agents that send out jobs every other agent sends out. That’s lazy. Also keep an eye out for agents that are never available, and never give you any feedback.

What level of transparency should we expect from online casting sites, and what does that look like?

A lot has been said about one of the biggest online casting sites operating out of Canada. Last year, Voices dot com (VDC) had a clear and controversial presence at VO Atlanta. This year, the conference organizers determined that VDC was no longer welcome at the table, because it “does not have the best interest of voice talent at heart.” The importance of that decision should not be underestimated, and the announcement was greeted with great applause.

As you may know, I have exposed VDC’s dubious business practices in the past, and part of their problem has to do with a lack of transparency. When asked why VDC would not be entirely open about the way they do business, I quoted psychologist Dr. Phil McGraw, who once said:

“People who have nothing to hide, hide nothing.”

An online casting site must be open about their business practices. Otherwise, it will lose the trust of its members. It has to be clear about the way auditions are offered, and to whom. Is everybody getting a fair chance, or is there a secret system limiting talent, lining the pockets of the people in charge?

A Pay to Play has to be open about how much a client is paying, how much the talent is getting, and how much is taken in by the casting site. That site should listen to feedback from its members, answer questions honestly and without spin, and refrain from double or triple dipping.

Is it reasonable for sites to charge both a membership fee and a commission?

Ideally, I believe a commission should cover all services provided by the online casting site. That way the site has an incentive to deliver, and make sure the talent gets paid a fair fee. Commission rewards positive action. The more a talent makes, the more the casting site makes.

Now, by using the commission model, an online casting site might start acting like an agent, and in the U.S. that’s not allowed. Remember though, that in most countries in the world there are no voice-over agents, so this is not as big of an issue as it may seem to some.

THE UNSPOKEN SIDE OF BUSINESS

During the panel discussion in Atlanta I noticed something I hadn’t noticed before: the ethical aspect of our business is not something we tweet about, or talk about on Facebook. Ethical issues are hard to put into 140 characters, or in a short status update. They often are complex, deeply personal, and seldom black or white.

Some people don’t give ethics much thought. If the money is good, they’ll take the job. Others feel that just because they’re the voice of a campaign, it doesn’t mean they have to agree with that campaign. They see themselves as voice actors, and actors merely play a role. That in and of itself, is a position based on a personal belief. 

One thing I know for sure, and from experience.

Once you decide where you draw the ethical line, you will be tested. Let’s say you don’t like the way animals are treated by the agricultural-industrial complex. The moment you decide not to promote anything having to do with animal abuse, you will get a request to do a commercial for a fast food company.

It’s the irony of life!

WILL YOU JOIN ME?

During VO Atlanta, many colleagues had a breakthrough moment, or even multiple Aha moments. Just look at your social media stream. People can’t stop posting about it. Something in them has changed as a result of this conference. A spark has been ignited, colleagues have become friends, and people no longer feel isolated.

Take my advice, and join that silly gang in 2018 (March 1-4). If you preregister now by clicking on this link, you’ll lock in the very best price. This offer is available until the end of the month.

I hope to see you there, and perhaps we’ll get another chance to talk about ethics!

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

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PPS The inimitable Peter O’Connell has penned a response to this post. Click here to read it. 

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VO’s Unfair, so, Grow a Pair!

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Freelancing, Personal 18 Comments

Two pears

The other day it happened again.

In mid-session, I gave one of my voice-over students a simple script for a cold read. I thought he’d be excited to try something new, but this is what he said:

“You’re giving me this now? Are you trying to trick me? You gave me zero time to practice and get ready. I don’t think that’s fair.”

“Wow, I wasn’t expecting that response,” I said. “You’ve grown so much in the last few weeks, I thought you’d be up for a challenge. Maybe we should use this as a teaching moment?”

He agreed.

“First off, just as there is no crying in baseball, there is no fair in voice-overs, or in any freelance job for that matter.”

“What do you mean?” my student asked.

“Let me give you a few examples.

Yesterday, some A-list actor made fifteen grand for saying three lines in a 30-second commercial. Today, a VO-colleague got a nineteen hundred dollar check for narrating a lengthy novel that took her a month to record, and two weeks to edit. Is that fair?

How about this one:

A voice-over veteran auditioned for ten jobs a day for four weeks straight, and landed none of them. Meanwhile, a newbie walked up to a microphone, yelling a few words and hit the jackpot because some producer thought he sounded “raw and authentic.”

Here’s another one:

A fellow voice actor had been recording eLearning programs for the same company for six years at the same rate. His work was consistent, and he never missed a deadline. He came to think of himself as the go-to voice of that company. So, when year seven came around, he raised his rates a little, in line with the increased cost of living.

He never heard from the company again.

Is that fair?

Now, here’s something that happened to me.

A few weeks ago I auditioned for a very prestigious job that would have paid the mortgage for at least six months. At the end, it was between me and another person. Why didn’t I get the job? The reason was simple: the client preferred a female voice.

“Tell me,” I asked my student, “do you think that’s fair?”

He made a noise suggesting a lightbulb was slowly coming on in his head, so I continued…

“The idea of “fair” presupposes that there’s some grand equalizing principle at work in the world that gives equal opportunities to people with similar education, abilities, and experience.

Well, wouldn’t that be nice?

In many ways we may be equals, but that doesn’t mean we’re equal, or that we’re treated as such. What do I mean by that?

In a highly subjective and personal business as ours, things like training and experience count for something, but they will never get you hired. The fact that you’ve taken a few voice-over classes, and you’ve been knocking on doors for a few years, entitles you to… nothing.

The only guarantee I can give you, is that there are no guarantees.

No matter how hard or how long some people study, they’ll never become the next Albert Einstein, Yo-Yo Ma, or Don LaFontaine.

That’s not unfair. It is what it is.

On paper you may be the most experienced voice talent in the room, but a casting director isn’t listening for your resume or seniority. She needs to make her client happy, and the client wants someone who sounds just like his grandfather selling cattle in Kansas during the Great Depression.

Oh… but the specs didn’t say that, right? How unfair!

That’s because the client didn’t know he was looking for that voice until he listened to the top ten auditions.

My student let out a despondent sigh.

“That’s why the audition was a “cattle call,” I joked.

“But seriously, the only “fair” thing about this situation is that to most people in the middle, this crazy business is equally unfair. With “people in the middle” I mean the vast majority of voice-overs who aren’t making millions voicing The Simpsons, but who aren’t new to the business either.

I call them “the Nobodies.”

It may sound derogatory, but I don’t mean it that way. I mean it literally. Not figuratively.

Voice actors get hired for the way they move their lips; not for the way they move their hips. We’re not in the game for our glamorous looks, but for the way we sound. You and I… we are a no-body. Personally, that makes me very happy because slobs like me still stand a chance.

“But what about things like merit,” my student wanted to know. “Isn’t winning something like an Audie, or a Voice Arts™ Award going to open certain doors? That would be fair, wouldn’t it? I mean, winning a prize makes people more in-demand, right?”

“It’s a definite maybe. Let me explain.

Even though audio books have become increasingly popular, most people still think of a German car when they hear the word Audie. Secondly, I’m not sure clients will hire you on the spot because you won some gold-plated statuette they’ve never heard of. Accolades may be well-deserved, but they’re only worth their weight if they mean something to people outside the cheering in-crowd.

Even Oscar winners need to audition again and again, unless a part is especially written for them. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. It keeps people sharp and humble.”

I took a long sip of water, and formed my next thought.

“Then there’s this weird phenomenon in our business that’s hard to prove. Let’s pretend people actually know about your reputation as a prize-winning narrator. They might not consider you for their next project because they assume you’ve become too expensive. Do you think that’s fair?

I once thought I could convince a client to hire me by telling them about the famous brands I had worked with in the past. Big mistake! The software giant I was auditioning for, ruled me out once they heard a close competitor had used my voice in 2015. This is what I also learned:

Most clients aren’t very interested in what you did for others, years ago. They want to know one thing:

What can you do for ME, today?

I’m not saying accolades aren’t awesome, but as the Dutch soccer star Johan Cruyff used to say:

“Every advantage has its disadvantage.”

That’s unfair too, but here’s the ugly truth:

In an unregulated business, those in power, and those with the deepest pockets get to determine what is fair.

“Pardon me, but that’s depressing,” said my student. “First of all, you’re giving me a lecture instead of a lesson. Secondly, I thought you were supposed to encourage me. Now I don’t even know if I want to be a voice-over anymore.”

“Language is a wonderful thing,” I said. “Especially if you like to play with words. To the ear, there’s almost no difference between “the termination,” and “determination.” The choice is yours.

If you want to end this, it’s going to be the termination of something promising. If -on the other hand- you really, really want to become a successful voice-over, allow what I’ve just said to strengthen your determination.

Please don’t be a chicken. You didn’t hire me to stick some feathers up your butt, so I could make some money off your dreams. That would be unethical. Just like that coach in the gym, you hired me to take you through a series of exercises designed to build your muscles, and give you a strong spine. You’re gonna need it!

And just like in the gym, change is a gradual process. Some days, your muscles might ache because of the resistance training. Sometimes, it might feel like you’ll never reach your ideal weight because you see other people getting fitter faster. But remember:

You’re on a personal path.

Those scary slim people you admire so much were born with different bodies, and different metabolisms. Some of them go to the gym every day of the week, and stay there for hours. Others like you can only afford to come twice a week for a 45-minute session.

You know what isn’t fair? Comparing yourself to others!

Compare yourself to yourself instead. So, here’s what I want you to do.

Forget the word fair.

Instead, focus on the word Prepare.

My goal is to help you be the best you can be at this moment in time, and to become even better in the future. Forget the silly randomness of this subjective business. You cannot control it. But one day soon, opportunity will knock on your door, and you’d better be ready! That’s the part you can control. Do you get that?”

My student made an affirmative noise. 

“Before we end this session, I want to give you one more piece of advice. I’ve known you for a while, and you’ve told me more than once that you’re a perfectionist. That mindset will hold you back, and that’s why you probably didn’t want to do the cold read I just gave you. Am I right? Were you afraid of making mistakes because I didn’t give you any time to look at the text?”

Reluctantly, my student agreed, and I went on:

“Please listen to this:

Be soft on yourself!

I strongly believe that living is learning. As human beings, I feel it is our job to evolve; to unearth and develop what we’re capable of, and to share those gifts with the world. 

To that effect, life offers us lessons. And unlike in voice-overs, life’s unscripted. You never know what it will throw at you next, so you have to be prepared to catch it while you can. Sometimes you need to improvise, and try things you’ve never done before. Sometimes you’ll get it right, and sometimes you won’t. As long as you keep on learning and growing, you’re doing great. This is what I want you to remember:

No matter how long you train, and how hard you work, you will never be perfect, and that’s perfectly fine. You want to know why? 

Because perfection has nowhere to grow.”

My student’s response was so quiet that I could almost hear the penny drop. Then I said:

“Let that sink in for a while, and let me know what you think, okay?”

“Fair enough,” said my student.

“Fair enough.”

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

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